Suppressed Jailhouse Confessions Allowed for Impeachment

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The Supreme Court ruled this morning that a confession obtained in violation of the 6th Amendment right to counsel is still admissible on cross-examination to impeach a defendant who testified that someone else did it.

Writing for the 7-2 majority in Kansas v. Ventris today was the always-entertaining Justice Scalia. He summed up the facts more pithily that we could, and we’re keen to see if we can figure out to insert block quotes, so here’s Scalia’s summary:

In the early hours of January 7, 2004, after two days of no sleep and some drug use, Rhonda Theel and respondent Donnie Ray Ventris reached an ill-conceived agreement to confront Ernest Hicks in his home. The couple testified that the aim of the visit was simply to investigate rumors that Hicks abused children, but the couple may have been inspired by the potential for financial gain: Theel had recently learned that Hicks carried large amounts of cash.

The encounter did not end well. One or both of the pair shot and killed Hicks with shots from a .38-caliber revolver, and the companions drove off in Hicks’s truck with approximately $300 of his money and his cell phone. On receiving a tip from two friends of the couple who had helped transport them to Hicks’s home, officers arrested Ventris and Theel and charged them with various crimes, chief among them murder and aggravated robbery. The State dropped the murder charge against Theel in exchange for her guilty plea to the robbery charge and her testimony identifying Ventris as the shooter.

Prior to trial, officers planted an informant in Ventris’s holding cell, instructing him to “keep [his] ear open and listen” for incriminating statements. App. 146. According to the informant, in response to his statement that Ventris appeared to have “something more serious weighing in on his mind,” Ventris divulged that “[h]e’d shot this man in his head and in his chest” and taken “his keys, his wallet, about $350.00, and . . . a vehicle.” Id., at 154, 150.

At trial, Ventris took the stand and blamed the robbery and shooting entirely on Theel. The government sought to call the informant, to testify to Ventris’s prior contradictory statement; Ventris objected. The State conceded that there was “probably a violation” of Ventris’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel but nonetheless argued that the statement was admissible for impeachment purposes because the violation “doesn’t give the Defendant . . . a license to just get on the stand and lie.” Id., at 143. The trial court agreed and allowed the informant’s testimony, but instructed the jury to “consider with caution” all testimony given in exchange for benefits from the State. Id., at 30. The jury ultimately acquitted Ventris of felony murder and misdemeanor theft but returned a guilty verdict on the aggravated burglary and aggravated robbery counts.

The Kansas Supreme Court reversed the conviction, holding that “[o]nce a criminal prosecution has commenced, the defendant’s statements made to an undercover informant surreptitiously acting as an agent for theState are not admissible at trial for any reason, including the impeachment of the defendant’s testimony.”

In his decision this morning, Scalia pointed out that the exclusionary rule is applied differently, depending on the rights that were violated. The Fifth Amendment’s protection from compelled self-incrimination is enforced with an absolute exclusion — the overriding of an individual’s free will and extraction of a confession is so heinous, that the confession cannot be used either in the prosecution’s case-in-chief, nor in rebuttal, nor for impeachment. The exclusionary rule there is used to prevent violations of the right. On the other hand, the exclusionary rule is not automatic in the Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure context, nor is it absolute, but can instead be used to rebut and impeach the defendant’s testimony.

With respect to the Sixth Amendment, when there is a pretrial interrogation of a defendant — after the defendant has been formally charged — the defendant has the right to have a lawyer present. Apart from that, it only guarantees a right to counsel at trial. The reason why there’s a right to counsel at the interrogation stage is because interrogation is a critical stage of the prosecution.

Let’s stop there for a second to point out that this is an odd presumption. It’s odd in that the only interest at stake is the defendant’s interest in beating the rap. We’re not talking about coerced confessions here. The reason for this rule cannot be that we want a witness to the confession, a defense lawyer who can confirm whether it was voluntary or not. Because the attorney can’t testify, and he isn’t likely to be believed in the first place, because he’s interested in protecting his client.

The effect is to stop confessions that otherwise would have been freely made, by requiring counsel whose real purpose is to tell the defendant to shut up. The obvious problem is that, if a lawyer was present, then that would make the police acts even more offensive, violating or infringing on attorney-client confidentiality, which would be even more violative of the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel. Frankly, when the Supreme Court carved out this rule in Massiah, Brewer, etc. they were fighting a non-existent Sixth Amendment problem while ignoring the actual underlying Fourth Amendment problem.

But we digress.

Scalia, too, has problems with Massiah, calling it “equivocal on what precisely constituted the violation. It quoted various authorities indicating that the violation occurred at the moment of the postindictment interrogation because such questioning ‘contravenes the basic dictates of fairness in the conduct of criminal causes.’ But the opinion later suggested that the violation occurred only when the improperly obtained evidence was ‘used against [the defendant] at his trial.’”

Nevertheless, Scalia had no problem deciding that “the Massiah right is a right to be free of uncounseled interrogation, and is infringed at the time of the interrogation.”

So far, so good. Everyone now agrees that there was in fact a Sixth Amendment violation here. The issue now is whether the fruits of that violation must be excluded absolutely, as with a Fifth Amendment violation, or only kept out of the case on direct, as with the Fourth.

In this situation, Scalia argued, the purpose of exclusion would not be prevention of the violation, as it is with the Fifth Amendment. Instead, the purpose would be to remedy a violation that has already occurred, as with the Fourth.

When that is the purpose, there is strong precedent that such excluded evidence is allowed for impeachment. The defendant’s interests are outweighed by the need to prevent perjury, and by the need to ensure the integrity of the trial process. Although the government cannot make an affirmative use of evidence unlawfully obtained, that doesn’t mean the defendant can shield himself against contradiction of his untruths.

Therefore, once a defendant has testified contrary to his excluded statement, the excluded statement is admissible on cross or in rebuttal. “Denying the prosecution the use of ‘the traditional truth-testing devices of the adversary process’ is a high price to pay for vindication of the right to counsel at the prior stage.”

If the rule were any different, Scalia added, if the statements were absolutely excluded, there would be no extra deterrent effect. The odds that any given defendant will actually testify at trial are very small. The odds that he would then testify differently — knowing that the statement would be admissible for impeachment — are even smaller. So letting this come in for impeachment is not going to cause any cops to play games, and get excludable statements in the hopes of using them for impeachment later.

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